Maybe is hyperbolic, but in some years, I do not want to mention my name or gender anymore. I want to follow the example of ancient artists in Egypt of Mesopotamia, whose name and gender we don’t know, we have no idea about who they were, and it’s okay like this.
You are just an artist; you don’t need to be or represent anything else.
Few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to interview Georgian artist Rusudan Khizanshvili, whose art is a complex interplay of chimeric allegories, female representation and an in-depth reference to art history and literary tradition. I personally saw for the first time Rusudan artworks as KIAF international fair in Seoul, which powerfully captured me. I immediately knew that I wanted to discover more about her art, which stages allegorical landscapes that would speak to me a language similar to Marquez’ magical realism, with beast-like women and references to classic iconography, all tied through a symbolic and expressionist choices of color.
The conversation with Rusudan offered me to dive into her artistry, unveiling the several nuances of her work and helping me to understand the multiple influences and references of her allegorical stages. We also spoke about loving art history, the importance of the past, what it means to be a woman artist today and the flourishing Georgian cultural landscape.
What resulted was such a rich (and enriching) dialogue. The decision of publishing the full interview uncut came by itself, with the hope that it could lead to an interesting in-depth journey into the thoughts, creativity, ideals and art of this amazing woman artist.
On Rusudan Khizanishvili artistic practice and process
VB: What does painting mean to you? When did you realise that you wanted to become an artist, and how did you negotiate your path?
RK: Art has been part of me since I remember myself, I can’t remember myself not painting or drawing, sketching or doodling in notebooks or on the back of books at school. As for my life path, I was born in North Caucasus, then part of the Soviet Union. First, I attended musical school, later starting an art school. Our family returned to Georgia when I was in 7rd grade and continued studying drawing through my early years. I was greatly motivated by my mother – who wanted me to finally make my choice and to push my artistic career in 1990s. This was a time of civil unrest and a very difficult time for Georgia. But nonetheless I decided to enroll in the Nikoladze Art School, concentrating in painting. After that, I attended the State Academy of Arts in Tbilisi, where I majored in filmography, but I never worked in films.
I can compare the development of my artistic style as the same path everyone goes through when entering in school and I can compare the development of my artistic style as the same route everyone takes when entering school and learns how to read and write. In the beginning it is always difficult, then you become fluent, you get the skills you need, and then you are choosing the books that you want to read, and finally the books choose you. I believe in the importance of classical education, people today think that they don’t need to get it, yet I believe it is a fundamental part and I take enormous inspiration from it. I think it’s also interesting how I never initially think about a definitive style of my paintings, I rather think about the stories that I can tell through my hands and brushes, that’s the most important thing for me. You know, before I never thought I had the symbolic way of painting, but it seems that it chose me. When I was a student, I didn’t think about the possibility of symbolism, but taste always changes and evolves. At the time, I really liked avant-guarde artists such as Dalì, yet nowadays I prefer the classical masters. I love Abstract Expressionists like Rothko, but for me the Impressionists, the Renaissance and medieval artists are the constant and most important sources of influence and inspiration.
VB: I totally agree with you and the importance of the classics and how art history shapes our narrative identity as someone that works with art. And referring to that, I believe you have a very narrative way of painting. The first time I saw your work, it reminded me of magical realism, with endless allegories that play a role in your stories. You said that you didn’t know you would embrace symbolism, but at the end this way of painting chose you. I would love to go more in depth on that, how do you use symbols in your creative process and how do you build your stories?
RK: Surely literature has the biggest impact on me and always influences me. I started reading very early in my youth, and I would always choose very big books. My sister is ten years older than me, and when I entered school, she studied comparative literature as a student. So, I started reading her books. And all those readings contributed to my inspiration. You know, nothing gets lost, everything remains there, it’s like the ocean, you have an underwater world you can dive in and get inspired by.
Another important factor is the role that painting technique has in the formation of my stories. In 2013 I gave up on painting with oil when I had a solo show in Jordan and everyone was surprised that I was painting with oil, yet for me it was very normal as back home we didn’t have acrylic paints. So when I came back, I started looking into the possibilities of painting with acrylic and I discovered it was an interesting path to take. When I started painting with them, I went into an abstract period, playing with multiple layers of paint and brushes, it is then that I started to paint the protagonists of my stories. At the time I didn’t know what I wanted to say with my stories, as I was experimenting with different techniques and seeing how each of them gave me different possibilities. But now, it is very different, I really know what I want to say.
“Everything that I paint must come and pass through my filters”
I must say also that an important part has always been for me the precise wording of the artwork’s title: it can be only one word or one entire sentence, spanning from the title of a book or a song, or something I heard. I always start with the title and then I think about what I would create around that concept. I never make sketches, but I directly paint on the canvas: is when I start to work directly on the canvas that I finally see the meaning and sense of my work very clearly, in the forms, shapes, and ideas of what I want to say. In addition, I never know which color I will use. For instance, I know that a figure may be red or yellow, but anything else comes through by itself. This is something like mystery. I never know how it will end, and I trust my feelings on that, as I believe sincerity is very important in art Recently, I started using lilies and roses in my paintings, both important Christian symbols, with references to Renaissance and the classic masters of the past. Yet, they undergo a transformative process, becoming very personal in my own paintings. Everything that I paint must come and pass through my filters.
On art history, symbolism & woman representation
VB: Talking about the Christian symbols and renaissance references, when I was at KIAF I was particularly impressed by your painting called “Mirroring”, with the two angelic women facing each other’s, it reminded me of the announcement, for instance. Another work of yours also reminded me of the Christian painting iconography of Christ or Virgin Mary in golden almonds. I was really impressed by those.
RK: Yes, exactly. Stories of Annunciation, Virgin Mary and Saint Gorge are among my favorite stories in Christianity. I like the idea of rituals: everything was invented by people to make complex concepts more understandable for other people. Not only by the Christian church, but also in Mesopotamia or Egypt. Each of these civilizations practiced rituals bringing visuality at their very center, so that everyone could understand the meaning. I love these ideas of rituals because they are staged, and staging is a very important aspect of my practice. If you look at The Mirroring, for instance, you see how the scene is unveiled on a stage, and you are just and observer, not a protagonist. In some of my paintings you can be a protagonist, but in others you just assist on a stage. It’s like assisting to one of the biggest mysteries, like being present during the time of birth, death, or baptism. In “Mirroring”, the woman is behind a curtain, but if you move a little to the right you can lose the sight of her and only see a mirror, like in surrealist paintings. The woman’s hair is at the center of this representation, as I took inspiration from the biblical myth of Samson and Delilah, reversing it and giving all the power to the latter. Delilah in my painting has all the power, and her hair acquire almost a cosmic energy. I really like the stories that folklore teaches us, and it’s very interesting how in Islam, Orthodox Christian or Catholic creeds women would always cover their hair, it means that we, women, hold so much power in them. So why don’t we use them, as a weapon?
VB: It’s clear that women have an important role in your paintings, what are the stories that you want to narrate about them? It is interesting how often they are represented as chimerical creatures, how did you come up with this representation and what is their role in your narrative?
RK: Because I am a woman, the main character of my paintings is always a woman. Nowadays artists can choose everything as subjects of their paintings, it is not anymore solely based on commissions like in the past. Everything nowadays is around the artist and about the artist. For me, since my childhood women have always been the main subjects. I lost my father when I was very young, and my mother has since been the strongest woman in my life. She demonstrated how women can do absolutely everything, she was so strong, especially in Georgian society, which is very patriarchal. She probably was my biggest inspiration, and because of her I knew I wanted to go against this kind of male-oriented, rigid, social structure. I want women to have power, like the Amazons: we women warries like the Amazons in Georgia, during the 6th or 7th centuries, women warriors who fought to defend the territory. It’s funny because it seems that Georgia may be the most feminist country in the region, as we had King Tamar during the Georgian golden age, but nowadays we don’t have much power. However, I’m happy that it seems that today things are changing, especially in Tbilisi with the new generation. These young women are very strong, and I believe that now it is just a question of time until they will fully assume their agency. So, for all these reasons, I think that it is very important today to speak and tell stories about powerful women.
VB: I really resonate with what you just said. I believe that right now it’s a great moment for social change, especially for women. Artists, activists, students in every context are raising their voices, and they pretend to be heard. As a researcher in cultural studies myself, I highly believe in the power of representation: what we look up to, what we see around us shapes the way we see ourselves within the society we live into. And so having the chance to interact with art that tells powerful stories about women – like yours – is rightfully important today. Personally, I have a hope that in the future there will be no need to say “women artist”, just “artist” will feel right because there won’t be anymore this gender disparity. But today, the concept of “women artist” is important and powerful.
RK: You are so right; I hope this will happen one day. For example, my teacher at Tbilisi Academy of the Arts, would tell me “Rusudan, you are a very good artist, you paint like a man”. This kind of thinking still exists, if you are very good in your own field, it means you are like a man. I’m against that. Maybe is hyperbolic, but in some years, I do not want to mention my name or gender anymore. I want to follow the example of ancient artists in Egypt of Mesopotamia, whose name and gender we don’t know, we have no idea about who they were, and it’s okay like this. You are just an artist; you don’t need to be or represent anything else.
VB: Coming back to the concept of powerful women, the subject of your paintings are often also part animals, like mythological creatures. I think about one of your recent paintings, “The Victory”, which reminds me of the Assyrian or Egyptian mythological references. Which role have those chimerical figures in your art?
RK: You can indeed see so many examples from history of art about chimeras, but the personal layer of reference is also very important for me. I believe that human beings are still animal-like. Yes, we are civilised, but in very critical situations we become like animals: fear, hunger, lust, they can turn us into animals within one second. Three years ago, I had a person show at the Mark Rothko Art Center in his native city, Daugavpils, titled “Conversion Device”. It was exactly about this theme, how close or far are we (humans) and animals. Today as we are polluting the environment and damaging the planet, what will we be in the future? Hybrids? Who will be the winner in the end? With these questions in mind, I try to give some extra animal power to the humans in my paintings, to let them survive into the future. It is a quite complex concept, yet of course the first inspiration comes from mythology. Furthermore, in all kind of religion and historical examples, women are wise and dangerous at the same moment. So that’s where the concept of a half-woman and half-beast comes from. If you think about it, everything started with Eve and the original sin. If you want to blame someone, you can always blame it on a woman…then I’m twisting this narrative by giving power to her.
VB: There is another concept that we touched before and that I would love to explore more in depth. It’s your practice of “staging” your paintings. In some of your recent works you have a series where your stories are narrated within the walls of a room, it seems more intimate, while in other works, you paint allegories within outdoor landscapes. Yet, in both, the role of the stage seems prominent.
RK: I started to make the artworks for the “Rooms and Beings” show last year, during the pandemic. When everything started, I started to make the artworks for the “Rooms and Beings” show last November, during the pandemic at 68 Projects, Berlin curated by Nina Mdivani. When everything started, I realised that I was closeted in my house and losing the power to go outside. I thought, what can I see in my room? Perhaps I can see myself as bestiary, I have lots of faces, is like I could see a sphinx and other beings within myself. In this strange situation, I thought of the book “The Dollhouse” by Fiona Davis but also about works in history of art that would play with the idea of small rooms, like Vermeer or the Flemish painters. You see very cozy situations, but there is also a danger outside, it seems that you are escaping from the world and trying to find a shelter in your own room. For this reason, I called many paintings “The Shelters”, because in the pandemic period, our houses became that. And then, when I started going outside again, I changed the stage of my paintings and I put it outside, creating metaphysical landscapes with mountains and rivers. Everything though, is constantly staged, it’s like a Thurman show.
VB: That it was I felt, the staging makes me think about how your paintings must be observed from a distance, showing mysteries that need to be unveiled, understood. It reminded me of attic theatre, and the power of staging stories in tragedy…all the power that art itself had at that time.
RK: And the power that the painter has. I believe that the main purpose of art is the connection you have with the painting, which holds so many layers of meaning. This is why I am still doing it, I think. There is never just one interpretation, but different ones that converge when it comes to painting. And I personally like to listen to what people can see in my artworks, what they can understand from history of art. So many references are even unconscious, and when it comes to history of art, is just like a language you developed long time ago and that re-emerges when standing in front of an artwork. It’s a very exciting journey.
Going beyond: Georgian culture and future plans
VB: I would love to talk about Georgia, since many aspects of what you already told me are very intriguing. Before the interview, I also read Nina Mdivani’s book “King is female: Three Artists from Georgia” which mentions how Georgia has a very rich cultural and art heritage. I would love to know more about this. I was also wandering if you could share with us some Georgian cultural references that inspired you in your work, so that perhaps they can inspire us too.
RK: Georgia is a very tiny country, but it is indeed very rich both artistically and culturally. We have our own alphabet, a very ancient script, that we are very proud of. We also have distinct traditions of architecture, frescoes, and literature. Our folklore is also rich and interesting, with lots of goddesses. There is a particular era that is very important, which is referred to as the “Georgian golden age” and date of high Middle Ages, where Georgia was ruled by King Tamar. From this exact era comes an epic poem that an endless inspiration for all types of Georgians artists. “The Knight in Panther’s Skin”, is an allegoric poem written by Shota Rustaveli. I was working on a group show that included other 13 Georgian artists, where we created our own interpretation of the book as well as paintings inspired by it. I worked with an expert on this poem, who was explaining me all the symbols and layers used in the poem, and it was a fantastic experience.
VB: It is so interesting to discover more about Georgian culture, which makes me curious about asking you how instead the local contemporary art scene is today.
RK: I can say the art scene is rising and developing right now in a very exiting way. We had significant existential, economic, social problems following the crash of the USSR, but now I would say that comparatively speaking we are on the rise. It is interesting to say that I am in the middle of two generations of artists. The older generation had the Soviet education, and thus has an absolutely different way of engaging with and producing art. Then there is my generation, we did not grew up with many resources and had very difficult time as we lived in the 1990s, with its civil war and related hardships. And then there is the young generation who is already rising, influenced by the examples of Europe and the West. Therefore, we have some galleries that show modern art related to the Soviet period and contemporary galleries that shows artists of my age as well as artists younger then me. Some people who are my age had a chance to leave Georgia and go to Europe or the US, and continue to work and study there. I didn’t have this opportunity, but I don’t consider it as bad, because I had another way to develop myself. Twenty years ago, we had a lack of contemporary art, now instead the scene seems really exciting, with not only local artist but also international ones – and the younger generation is doing really interesting things
VB: You are in Tbilisi now, but you are going to have a wonderful residency in Istanbul soon, and this year you already did so many things: we saw you in Art Verona and KIAF, among other places. It seems you are having such an exciting period, where will we see you next?
RK: This has been such an exciting year. Kornfeld Galerie, which represented me in Seoul, will represent me at Art021 fair in Shanghai in the beginning of November, and the Untitled during Art Basel Miami in early December. I will also start soon my residency in Istanbul, and I am now part of a group show WÜNDER WOMXN: THE FEMALE FIGURATIVE at Beers London. Recently I started to prepare for a new show, and it will take at least one year. I already think about 2022-2023, and I’m excited about my schedule. I am also happy that the art world is rising again after the pandemic.
VB: And how was your experience in Italy? You recently had a show in Naples at Annarumma Gallery, which also represented you in Art Verona.
RK: I am very excited about the new interest about my work in Italy. Italian collectors have been introduced to my art through Annarumma Gallery and now through Collezione Taurisano. I really like the way collectors and foundations work in Europe, and how you can explore art through the narrative of a private collections, it is a very interesting way of discovering art. I didn’t have the chance to get to see in person the show in Napoli, but I hope I will in the future!